Atheism grows in Australia; nonbelievers now outnumber Catholics

I woke up this morning to find at least 10 emails from people—largely Aussies, I think— informing me about the new census data on religious affiliation in Australia. (Thanks to all—there are too many to h/t!)  Australia seems a sensible country, and even though it has its share of religious extremists (it produced Ken Ham, for instance), I wasn’t surprised to see that, like Europe, Australia is undergoing secularization at a fast pace.

A pretty good summary of the data from the Australian Census of 2016 (apparently taken every five years) can be seen at news.com.au.  The question about religious affiliation is the only question on the census that’s optional, which suggests to me that the percentage of nonbelievers could be even higher, as those would seem to be the group least likely to declare their (non)belief (perhaps Muslims are in there, too).

The major findings are these:

  • Those people saying that they had “no religion” rose from 16% in 2001 to 22% in the last census to 29.6% now: nearly a doubling in the last 16 years. This may be a further underestimate, at the site reports that

“The religion question was controversial this year, with Australians warned not to mark “no religion” on the Census survey by those afraid the nation would become a “Muslim country”.”

  • The “no religionists” now outnumber Catholics: those believers comprise 25.3% in the last census but now dropped to 22.6%
  • Declared Christians (which include Catholics) have dropped from 88% in 1961 to 74% in 1991 to 51% now. That’s a substantial decrease.
  • Islam rose from 2.2% in 2011 to 2.5% now: 14% increase from its former numbers. Islam surpassed Buddhism as the largest non-Christian religion.

The data are in graphical form below

People’s declared religion. It looks as if the “nones” outnumber every given faith unless you lump Christian sects together:


The changes in affiliation over the last ten years:

And the raw numbers:

Here’s the summary and a statement from an Aussie atheist:

The results show Australia remains a predominantly religious country, with 60 per cent of people reporting a religious affiliation but the trend towards “no religion” has some calling for changes.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia said it was time to stop pandering to religious minorities and to take religion out of politics.

AFA president Kylie Sturgess said political, business and cultural leaders needed to listen to the non-religious when it came to public policy that’s based on evidence, not religious beliefs.

“This includes policy on abortion, marriage equality, voluntary euthanasia, religious education in state schools and anything else where religious beliefs hold undue influence,” she said.

She said certain religious groups seemed to get automatic consideration in the public policy sphere and to enjoy a privileged position that wasn’t afforded to other large groups, such as the non-religious.

“That has to stop. Politicians, business leaders and influencers take heed: this is an important milestone in Australia’s history. Those who marked down ‘No religion’ deserve much more recognition. We will be making our opinions known, and there’s power in numbers.”

In the West, it seems, and as I’ve always predicted, secularization is inevitable. Some day there will be more nonbelievers than believers in Australia. That will happen in America, too, but we won’t see it in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime. The reasons? Read Steve Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

40 Comments

  1. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Now what to do with all the clutter of the churches? Wine bars?

    • nicky
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      In the Dutch town of Hoorn, the Great Church was transformed into a department store. The church still looks majestic from the outside, but the inside kind of negatively shocked me, horrible.
      Look, I’m not a Christian anymore (for decades), but I love these beautiful churches, like I love beautiful architecture in general, not specifically Christian, mosque of Toledo, Alhambra, Borobudur, Kajuraho…

      • Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        I’ve seen some renovations, some good and some like you have seen, horrible. Done right, I’d visit these majestic halls for a pint or un petit verre. But knocking them down, Ceiling Cat forbid!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted June 27, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Those tall Gothic church interiors are magical light boxes – very difficult to convert sensitively. The developers got some government money for ‘De Grote Kerke’ & stuck five floors in for food, bar, retail & finally apartments in the roof space. A great loss!

        I just went on google street view – the Gothic windows now look like the lowest bid from a uPVC ‘plastic windows’ fitter.

        Perhaps the floors are done in a way that it can be turned back into one space again…

        Some pics here: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g188595-d9790646-Reviews-De_Grote_Kerk-Hoorn_North_Holland_Province.html

        • nicky
          Posted June 27, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          I definitely hope it can. converting a church into what Painedumonde calls a majestic hall for a pint or a petit verre would be awesome. It is indeed about conserving the architectural majesty, methinks

    • darrelle
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Concert halls? Battle-bot arenas?

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      An ex-Congregational church (1840s Greek-style) in the town where I live is now an outdoor-sports emporium. An ex-Anglican church is now a theatre. An ex-mission chapel is now an antiques store. An ex-Methodist church has just been sold for conversion to housing.

      Plenty of socially useful functions these places can be put to, if we put our minds to it!

    • James Walker
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      In Toronto, they’ve turned a couple of churches into condos/lofts. The house of the partner of a friend of mine who lives in remote Washington state used to be a church. The building *can* have useful purposes 🙂

  2. rickflick
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Congratulations Australia! The US should watch and learn out to pull this off.

  3. Kevin
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Maybe it’s the airport security in Australia which makes them more reasonable and therefore more likely to be secular:

    Australian TSA

    As soon as the US learns to collectively chill out, it will move away from dreams of afterlife that blanket their insecurities.

  4. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    So down under things are looking up.

  6. Kosmos
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Of course “no religion” doesn’t necessarily mean non-believer. Many people who just believe in some kind of “higher power” would probably choose “no religion”.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Mebbe so, but even that seems a step in the right direction. Few such people are compelled by their “higher power” to bomb abortion clinics or wage jihad.

  7. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Good that Australia is tracking this. I find here that Statistics Canada doesn’t track religiousity very well.

    • nwalsh
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Maybe not, but I suspect our numbers are similar to Australia. See Friendly Atheist this morning.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Canadians are too God damned polite. They wouldn’t ask.
      😎

      • Posted June 28, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        It is regarded that asking about religious affiliation is more intrusive than asking about:
        – family income (even with cut offs and bins)
        – being at the “producing end” of domestic violence
        – recent consumption of “hard” drugs

        I am not sure this makes sense.

    • Benjay
      Posted June 28, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      Google King’s Cove, St. James church, in Bonavista Bay NFLD and the art the media are making of the story.

  8. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    They need teachers in Australia!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      @bwcarey I’m guessing you mean the percentages don’t add up to 100%? The census religion question was optional – 9.6% skipped it 🙂

      • Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        it is how it is taught that matters

        • Steven in Tokyo
          Posted June 27, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

          ?????

          • Posted June 28, 2017 at 6:20 am | Permalink

            there was a time when the north american Indian was the demon in the eyes of the White man, women were the property of men, and so on, perception

            • Steven in Tokyo
              Posted June 28, 2017 at 8:16 am | Permalink

              ?????

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted June 28, 2017 at 8:26 am | Permalink

            Deal me in on the ‘?????’ 🙂

  9. DrBrydon
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I can see why they are worried. At 2.6% Australia could easily reach the tipping point, and become a muslim nation. Australia better go ahead and firm up that separation of church and state so they don’t have to wrry about people’s religion.

    • pck
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      You’re kidding right?

  10. nicky
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    What is actually the first country that had a majority of atheists (bar communist countries, where atheism was imposed, but reverted back quickly when the regime changed)? Was it Holland? Denmark? Japan? Maybe even France? (I don’t even know if a majority is atheist now there, but they have a long and honourable atheist tradition).

    • nicky
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      And how atheist is Confucianism and Buddhism?
      I do not think that, say, Thai Buddhism really qualifies as atheism. The reverence for Buddha is about indistinguishable from, say, Christian devotion.
      Confucianism maybe closer to atheism, so China and Taiwan?

      • Posted June 28, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        “Confucianism” is arguably not a religion at all, though might be one if taken too dogmatically. It might also be taken to be one if “heaven” is taken supernaturalistically, which is debatable, to say the least.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      @nicky I would say China was “the first country that had a majority of atheists” historically… Confucianism has no personal god & it is much older than Maoism.

      If you insist on a non-communist example then it is probably Sweden, but there’s a lot of ‘spiritual’ Swedes it seems: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreligion_in_Sweden

      You can sort the table in this Wiki by clicking the column headers. That gives a top eight of China, Sweden, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Netherlands, UK, Israel [many, many Jewish atheists], Japan
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_irreligion

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Zuckerman’s incomplete map is a good visual guide. I am surprised by Chile.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      This table for ‘irreligion’ is different [not all countries are there]…

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreligion

  11. Filippo
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    A few days ago in the NY Times there was an article about the “hypermasculine” culture obtaining in Australia, and about how a university student’s public complaint of sexual harassment, (date) rape, etc. resulted in her (and others) dorm room being flooded, mattress urinated on, alienation by friends, and vile comments on social media.

    I wonder what if any religion-related correlation/causation may exist with regard to this behavior.

    • Ullrich Fischer
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Men are naturally superior to women, Women are inherently icky, and rape isn’t that big a deal are all implicit or even explicit ideas in Abrahamic religions with (currently) Islam being the most vicious in asserting these abhorrent ideas, so even if the perps in these cases have foresaken the religions of their birth there is a high probability that they carry prejudices based on those ideas even after they realize that the dogma is bullshit.

  12. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Muslims really outnumber Buddhists in Oz given that clear and deadly dangers faced by people in Muslim communities who admit they no longer believe?

  13. James Walker
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m not an Aussie but I move to Melbourne two months ago. This was good news, but unfortunately the current “Liberal” government (only in Australia are Liberals conservatives) is too beholden to its conservative Christian base.

  14. Tom
    Posted June 28, 2017 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    It is clear that Ken Ham and Mel Gibson are needed back in the old country.

    • James Walker
      Posted June 28, 2017 at 3:59 am | Permalink

      No thanks, you can keep ’em 😉


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